This year, like most in Chicago theater, was rife with candidates for my too-short list of best plays (including a number of acclaimed productions I sadly missed—there are only so many nights in the week). But among the contenders large and small, new or reimagined, naturalistic or giddily off-kilter, no single production stood out as defining 2012. Thus, this year’s list is presented in no particular order save alphabetical.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Bailiwick Chicago) Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s dizzy but deceptively serious rock-concert recounting of our seventh President’s unlikely story was both a downtown hit and a Broadway curiosity in its New York life. With Bailiwick Chicago, the show found the right size, the right crew and the right election-season timing to mine every emo-absurd resonance.
Good People (Steppenwolf Theatre Company) Another show benefiting from the election-year rhetoric it lucked into was David Lindsay-Abaire’s clear-eyed, steel-hearted portrait of class mobility and the lack thereof. Mariann Mayberry, a stalwart Steppenwolf ensemble member, rightly raised eyebrows with her dead-on portrayal of South Boston desperation and determination.
Hit the Wall (The Inconvenience) In their paean to the pansexual punks who resisted arrest and revved up the gay-rights movement at Stonewall, playwright Ike Holter, director Eric Hoff and electric actors—all a generation or three removed from their subjects—turned the riots into a happening all over again. Hoff’s stripped-down staging, Holter’s cunning linguistics and the Inconvenience’s nuclear energy brought this tiny show well-deserved national attention.
The Iceman Cometh (Goodman Theatre) Speaking of broad attention, all eyes were on the Goodman’s pairing of Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy as Robert Falls revisited Eugene O’Neill’s five-hour epic. Lane performed admirably in a demanding role, but it was Falls’s grand vision, designers Kevin Depinet and Natasha Katz’s painterly work and a massive ensemble of Chicago ringers that made this astonishing endurance test last spring’s hottest ticket.
Idomeneus (Sideshow Theatre Company) Sideshow spent its first few seasons establishing itself as a main attraction among the city’s up-and-comers. With this captivating U.S. premiere of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s contemporary take on an obscure-ish Greek myth, fluidly staged by artistic director Jonathan L. Green as a chorus-enhanced Choose Your Own Adventure, the company makes its first jump into our year-end center ring.
Invisible Man (Court Theatre) Court unleashed the year’s first five-star stunner in January, with a mind-bogglingly successful staging of Ralph Ellison’s seminal, seemingly unadaptable novel. Director Christopher McElroen, adapter Oren Jacoby and a spot-on cast and crew (led by Teagle F. Bougere’s searing performance in the title role) made the classics-dedicated theater’s first world premiere an event not to be missed.
Metamorphoses (Lookingglass Theatre Company) Sometimes there’s a theater piece that’s talked about with such reverence that if you weren’t able to see it the first (or second, or fifth) time it came around, you can’t imagine it will live up to the hype. Such was the case with Mary Zimmerman’s heavenly distillation of Ovid’s myths, first staged by Lookingglass in 1998. But this remounting, which marked the tenth anniversary of its Broadway run, enticed us right into the pool. The water’s fine, indeed.
Oedipus el Rey (Victory Gardens Theater) The transition from Dennis Zacek’s three-plus decades at the helm of VG to new artistic director Chay Yew has bruised many egos, to be sure. But the work onstage since the handover has felt reinvigorated. Luis Alfaro’s gangland recasting of Sophocles, directed by Yew, typified the best of his run so far: reverent to tradition but exhilaratingly relevant to current realities.
Romeo Juliet (The Hypocrites) Sean Graney is a remix master. The Hypocrites founder’s at his best in his lovingly distilled adaptations of classic (read: copyright-free) texts, recast as uniquely communal experiences (see this year’s The Mikado or 2010’s The Pirates of Penzance, both currently running in rep). His most effective piece this year was his gobsmacking cutting of Shakespeare’s romance for four devastating actors.
Sunday in the Park with George (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) The Navy Pier venue is named for the genius from 400 years ago, but this year (as last), Chicago Shakes’ best work came from its other favorite genius: Stephen Sondheim. Gary Griffin’s gorgeous revival of Sondheim’s contemplative study of Georges Seurat and the act of creating art—centered on Jason Danieley’s introspective Georges and bolstered by Mike Tutaj’s astonishing projection designs—gave new life to a quirky masterpiece.